So, your parents are vacationing in South Asia for all of November. Or your aunt has quit hosting Thanksgiving forever, after your little brother sampled liberally from her liquor cabinet and threw up all over her nice couch last year. Maybe you need a break from the annual family feast or simply don’t have the strength to do the holiday-travel thing twice in a month. Whatever the reason, you may just find yourself hosting your first Thanksgiving in less than a week and a half.
Are you panicking? Don’t. Common sense can often fail us when we’re trying to live up to our dad’s famous turkey recipe, impress the future in-laws, or otherwise perform unprecedented feats of hospitality in a minuscule amount of time. But as long you keep a few simple things in mind, we promise you’ll come through it just fine. After the jump, a comprehensive guide to popping your Thanksgiving cherry — or should that be cranberry? — without sacrificing your sanity.
Limit your guest list: This is always a tricky decision, whether you’re dealing with family, friends, or some combination of the two. First of all, unless you have lots of time, tons of help, and a big-ass kitchen and dining room, you need to limit your guest list. You cannot be all things to all people, and your first Thanksgiving should not be a 100-person affair.
You’ll want to be up on which of your relatives and pals never got along, as well as those who are newly feuding, and that may require asking someone you trust and plan on inviting. Then, plan your guest list accordingly. There are worse things than having a few people feel left out — such as running out of food or space, or having to referee a 25-year-old fight between two sides of your family.
Get this invitation, designed by Stephanie DosReis, at Pingg
Send invitations: These can — and should, for the sake of your sanity — be very informal. An email, a Facebook invite… or, as a stylish and simple alternative to Evite, try Pingg, whose invitations boast New Yorker cartoons and artist-created designs. Even if you’ve already informally contacted everyone you want to invite, a standardized invitation is a good way to make sure everyone has the same information about the event. Make sure people RSVP in time for you to plan your menu. Be very specific about directions, when you want people to get to your place, and what time dinner will be. This should save you the annoyance of super-early and way-late arrivals and frantic phone calls from guests who don’t know how to get to you.
Make sure you have help: Even the greatest culinary superhero will need some help pulling off Thanksgiving. When your dinner is still in the planning stages, you’ll want to secure the aid of one or more accomplices — significant others, siblings, and parents all work well. We guarantee you that at least once in the afternoon, you will need someone to tend the turkey while you focus on sides, greet the guests while you contend with the kitchen, or make a grocery store run.
Take the day before Thanksgiving off: This won’t be a possibility for everyone, but if you can swing it, you’ll be in a much better frame of mind to tackle Thanksgiving. Take the day to clean and decorate, shop for groceries, assemble your recipes, and maybe even get a bit of the cooking done. (If you can’t get the day off, try to get these things done the weekend before.) That way, you’ll have a head start on tomorrow’s madness — and you’ll also be less likely to waste Thanksgiving energy stressing over leftover work stuff.
Buying weird shit on Etsy: unnecessary
When it comes to decorating for Thanksgiving, we are firm believers in a less-is-more approach. Christmas may be all about an elaborate tree and the beautifully wrapped presents under it, but Thanksgiving is about food and company. If your house isn’t bedecked with cornucopia and other symbols of the harvest, no one is going to think worse of you.
What’s really important, then, is to make sure your home is clean. Probably the best way to do this, especially if you won’t have time off before Thanksgiving, is to do the stuff you only do once in a while — hardcore mopping that requires you to move furniture, carpet shampooing, cleaning out your refrigerator — the weekend before. Then, do the quick, regular tasks (vacuuming, bathroom cleaning, getting rid of clutter) the day before Thanksgiving. And this may seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget: Before you start cooking on Thursday, every dish in your kitchen should be clean. If you start your day with a full sink and important culinary implements in need of a washing, it’s going to slow you down, big-time.
If you do want to decorate, skip the streamers and plastic party-store crap. Thanksgiving is not a kid’s birthday bash, and if you style it that way, it’s going to feel cheesy from the very beginning. If anything, arrange some cool-looking gourds in interesting vessels — a cheap solution that shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes — scatter them around your living and dining spaces (definitely use one as a centerpiece), and call it a day.
Plan your menu well in advance: Make sure you know what you’re serving at least a week in advance. This will entail having a firm head count. And while you’ll almost certainly switch up some things, tweak the recipes, etc., at the last minute, you need a clear idea of what you’re trying to accomplish and whether it’s actually possible to finish everything you want to make. Once you’re confident about that, make a shopping list.
Know your dietary restrictions: Will you be cooking for any vegetarians? Vegans? Kosher folks? Celiacs? Make sure you find out (maybe ask guests to let you know in your invitation) and plan accordingly. You need not make an entirely separate dinner to accommodate everyone, but do be sure to have a good alternate main course option and a few sides that everyone will likely be able to eat.
Be sure you have all your groceries before Thanksgiving: Another one that seems obvious but is really easy to screw up. If, for example, your turkey recipe calls for a specific herb and you forgot to buy it, or thought you had some but didn’t, you could be setting yourself back the time it takes to do an extra grocery run.
Ask your guests to bring something: We understand that some cooks like to do it all themselves, and if you’re sure you can swing it, then feel free. But there is no shame in asking your guests to contribute something to the meal. It saves you time and money, and it also ensures that even the pickiest eater brings a dish he or she actually likes. Just make sure everyone clears what they’re bringing with you, so that you don’t end up with, say, five vats of yams.
Make the desserts the night before: Are you your grandma? No? Then you do not want to be the one in the kitchen baking the desserts while everyone else sits down to your delicious Thanksgiving meal. To avoid this situation, realize that many sweets — cookies and cakes, some pies, etc. — can be made the night before and chilled until you’re ready to serve them.
Use shortcuts: Listen, Sandra Lee grosses all of us out. No one wants you to plop Cool Whip on some frozen cheesecake and pretend you made that plasticky-tasting dessert. But for the love of God, you do not have time to spend hours on every one of your creations! If you’re making a pumpkin pie, do not force yourself to boil and skin an entire pumpkin. The canned stuff is fine. Making turkey soup yourself takes a long time! If you know a good place to buy a few quarts from, by all means, do it. Canned cranberry sauce? Totally acceptable! And remember that certain low-effort dishes — roasted vegetables, for instance, or a fresh salad with homemade vinaigrette — can be big crowd-pleasers.
Make one dish a dazzler: They can’t all be superstars, but one dish should definitely be a conversation piece. It could be a new take on a Thanksgiving classic, or maybe it’s something that has more to do with your family’s heritage than our nation’s. (Our Jewish clan has often served noodle pudding and brisket, along with the traditional stuff.) You could even try your hand at a celebrity recipe, such as this year’s universally buzzed-about Marilyn Monroe stuffing. Food is a great way to get people talking — and something delicious and unusual will surely give guests something great to remember.
Music: Music is a great way to set a mood, but it’s also a minefield. You want your guests to be able to hear each other talk, so make sure it isn’t too loud. And unless you’re hosting friends who share your taste in music, divisive stuff like punk and noise is just going to put people on edge. In general, you can never go wrong with the classics: The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Leonard Cohen. Everyone likes these people, and if they don’t, you probably don’t want them in your home.
After dinner: Different families have different post-meal traditions — but way too many involve the dudes gravitating to the wrap-around couch to zone out in front of football while the ladies scramble to clean up and entertain the kids. In 2010! Just because it’s Thanksgiving doesn’t mean it needs to be the ’50s. Sure, let people take turns with dishes, but try to find an activity that everyone can participate in, be it a board game or a favorite holiday movie (Hannah and Her Sisters, anyone?). And it’s never a bad idea to give people a hot holiday cocktail to sit with as they chat.